Activists cited a major victory last week when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on new rules which effectively protect net neutrality. The rules ensure that the Internet is treated as a public utility by prohibiting paid “fast lanes” offered by Internet service providers (ISPs).
Net neutrality, or open Internet, posits that all legal Internet content should be fully accessible to consumers and that neither governments nor ISPs should favor or block online content. Similarly, ISPs should not charge consumers higher prices for faster Internet.
Using Title II of the Telecommunications Act, the Internet was officially reclassified as a telecommunication service rather than an information service. The rules in Title II were altered from their beginnings in phone company days to reflect the modern consumer of the Internet.
“These are a 21st-century set of rules for a 21st-century industry,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. They were approved with a 3-2 vote.
The fights between activists and lawmakers date back to 2010, when the FCC passed the first set of rules protecting net neutrality. These rules, called the Open Internet Order, which activists said did not go far enough, kept Internet providers from being able to speed up or slow down certain websites. Further progress was halted last year when a federal appeals court said the FCC did not have the right to enforce the rules. Big telecom companies such as Verizon and Comcast have sued the FCC over open Internet decisions, and the Commission anticipates more lawsuits with the approval of these rules. “The big dogs are going to sue,” Wheeler said.
In the midst of an emerging debate over net neutrality – a term coined by Columbia law professor Tim Wu – even the White House got involved. “I personally, the position of my administration, as well as a lot of the companies here, is that you don’t want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the Internet is to different users,” Barack Obama said in August 2014. “You want to leave it open so the next Google and the next Facebook can succeed.” The following November, the president released a statement saying “An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life.” He went on to suggest four main rules that the FCC should adopt: no blocking, no throttling, increased transparency and no paid prioritization. These were main components of the FCC’s recent regulation.
Earlier this month, Wheeler unveiled the rules which, for the first time, would also give the FCC the power to enforce and police them. As advocacy organizations, most prominently Save the Internet as well as open, content-based sites like Tumblr, Facebook and Google, lobbied for increased government protection of net neutrality, opponents to the rules have other complaints. The opposition, made up of Republican lawmakers and telecommunications companies, argues that increased regulation hurts business, competition and creativity, or that the government should not meddle in the private telecom industry. Republicans in Congress may be working on a bill that would override the FCC’s new rules. Internet providers argue that the regulations deter them from necessary prioritization of internet traffic, such as in the case of emergency communication lines.
After the FCC’s decision was announced, the president released a statement lauding the new regulation. It cited that more than four million people wrote to the FCC in favor of net neutrality and said the decision “will protect innovation and create a level playing field for the next generation of entrepreneurs.”
“I certainly see the Internet as a great vehicle for freedom of expression and opinion, and this means that the government should protect it as such,” second-year NCSA President and net neutrality supporter Paige Pellaton said in an email interview. Pellaton went on to say that the absence of net neutrality regulation could pose serious risks. “Internet service providers could heavily discriminate against certain websites, blocking access to content altogether or charging domains different prices for varying speeds of service and delivery to the consumer.”
Although these new rules effectively “free the Internet,” the Internet is still far from free. “As of now, Internet access is a privilege given only to those who can afford it, though ideally that will change down the line,” Pellaton said. “I truly believe that information should never be pushed behind a paywall, and though net neutrality is a step toward that by ensuring nondiscriminatory practices, I look forward to a day when open and free Internet is easily accessible to all and abused by few.”
Information for this article was taken from nytimes.com, whitehouse.gov, fcc.gov